Amitava Kumar on Finding Solace in the Words of Others

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When my kids were little, I was always afraid that they would die, but that was mostly nervous ignorance on my part, knowing nothing about the resilience of little bodies. I used to worry how an infant would be able to tell me what was wrong. But the real worry was about my parents. They had language—and still they would die.

My mother died in early 2014. During the years that followed, I understood that now it was my father’s turn. He was healthy and active, at least till the pandemic arrived, but I wasn’t taking chances. I read and took note of anything that writers wrote about the death of their fathers.

For example, in a poem by Nick Laird: “I have been writing elegies for you all my life, Father…” I read those words and recognized my own reality. Then, exactly two years after Laird’s dad had died, it was my own father’s turn to be in the ICU.

From many years ago, I was haunted by a memory of another writer’s words. In Letters Between a Father and Son (2011), there was the stark fact of the son, V.S. Naipaul, unable to return home from Oxford where he was a student. He had sent a telegram instead.

= NAIPAUL 26 NEPAUL STREET PORT OF SPAIN TRINIDAD

= HE WAS THE BEST MAN I KNEW STOP EVERYTHING I OWE TO HIM BE BRAVE MY LOVES TRUST ME = VIDO

(In a later memoir-piece, published in the New Yorker magazine in 2019, Naipaul described getting a telegram from a “branch of the family” settled in London: BAD NEWS COME NOW. It was brutal, this communication, but “some instinct for drama, some wish to serve death in a correct way, had made them send a telegram.” In old Hindi films, the postman as the harbinger of death, arriving often on a bicycle, sending a chill down the spine of the audience with that single word, “Telegram.”)

The real worry was about my parents. They had language—and still they would die.

The days for receiving telegrams with dire news were now long past. After my arrival in the United States in the nineteen eighties, I knew I had to wait for a phone call. So, that was the fear: the phone ringing at the wrong hour.

And the fear of not having enough money, or time, to be able to go back. I remember talk among fellow graduate students: if you need to board a flight to get home in time for a cremation, how much is the airline going to charge? How to offer them proof of a death in the family?

Here’s a passage from Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Namesake (2003) where Gogol Ganguli, born to Bengali parents in America, reflects after his own father’s death in Cleveland: “He knows now the guilt that his parents carried inside, at being able to do nothing when their parents had died in India, of arriving weeks, sometimes months later, when there was nothing left to do.”

Last March, my father was taken to the hospital in our hometown Patna after he had been vomiting. Except that when he got to the hospital, having walked inside by himself, he started having trouble breathing. He was put on a ventilator. (In Lahiri’s novel, Gogol’s father drove himself to the hospital because his stomach is bothering him. The previous night he had eaten biryani prepared by graduate students who were learning to cook. At the hospital, however, he succumbed to a massive heart attack.)

My elder sister in Patna was sending me WhatsApp messages about my father’s worsening condition. She asked me to come soon and I went online and purchased a flight from New York to Delhi. So, it wasn’t just the technology that had changed; I had changed too. I was less anxious, and I was financially secure now. Still, I didn’t know whether upon arrival, my father would still be alive.

In a poem by Sharon Olds about her father she writes of her rush to the airport and buying a ticket and then being told that the flight was cancelled. The doctors have told her that her father will not live through the night. But then she is told of another airline with a flight leaving in seven minutes from another part of the airport. Another mad rush, and she makes it. “…I walked into his room / and watched his chest rise slowly / and sink again, all night / I watched him breathe.”

After landing in Delhi I sent a WhatsApp message to my sister, asking if the news “was good, bad, or very bad.” I received a reply immediately. Our father had been put in a prone position to help his breathing. From Delhi, I caught another flight, this one to Patna. At the hospital, I was asked to leave my shoes outside the ICU and choose one of the several pairs of used flip-flops in the corner.

About two years earlier, in Annie Ernaux’s memoir A Man’s Place, I had read of her resolve to shun an “artistic approach” to writing about her father. She had added: “No lyrical reminiscences, no triumphant displays of irony. The neutral way of writing comes to me naturally.” I love everything Ernaux writes and I remember thinking of her words during those long hours in the hospital. I was there each day for much of the day for a fortnight and often I asked myself what I would remember of the beeping, wheezing machines in the room, what the doctors and nurses said to each other, what words I would use to describe the unkempt look that had overtaken my father’s handsome face?

When I now look at the phone messages I was sending from the ICU to my wife and kids in America, I realize that I was being reportorial (“It’s nearly midnight here, no improvement”), but when I remember Ernaux, I am embarrassed by my absurd flourishes (“Dread the discoveries of the day”).

One day I made a drawing of my father’s face with the tangle of tubes and wires attached to him. His eyelids were taped shut after a few days because otherwise, even in his coma, his eyes stayed open and the doctors felt this interfered with the body’s rest. A gauze was put on his intubated mouth to keep in the moisture. I made the drawing because I remembered that my hero John Berger had drawn a death mask of his father and then, on Berger’s death, his son had done the same for him.

I had with me in the ICU a bulky manuscript. I had been asked to provide a blurb for a biography of a writer I liked, Hanif Kureishi. A few months back, around Christmas, Kureishi had fallen in Rome and become paralyzed. Like many other readers, I was following on Twitter the updates he would dictate for his sons or wife to record and post. They were honest dispatches, marked by his characteristic wry wit and no little measure of despair. Two decades earlier, Kureishi had sent me the manuscript of his memoir about his father, My Ear At His Heart (2004). The biography I was reading didn’t mention it but I remembered Kureishi writing in that book that his father had been doing breathing exercises when he died in the hospital. What a wonderful image—the Buddha of Suburbia to the very end!

After his father’s death, Kureishi, whose journal entries from that time had long been about his drug use (“cocaine, amyl nitrate, ecstasy, alcohol, grass”), now started visiting mosques. His novel The Black Album and the short-story “My Son the Fanatic” came out of that experience. I wondered what would happen to me after my father died? Would I turn to religion? No, I’d take refuge in reading—literature is the only religion that claims me as its devotee. “Art would never leave us like a father dying,” says the young woman grieving her father’s death in Sheila Heti’s novel Pure Colour.

If my father had been conscious, I suspect he would have a lot to tell me.

A year before my father died, I had read Blake Morrison’s memoir, When Did You Last See Your Father? I had marked several passages but the page I had book-marked with a card from a London restaurant contained the following lines: “I’ve become a death bore. I embarrass people at dinner parties with my morbidity. I used to think the world divided between those who have children and those who don’t; now I think it divides between those who have lost a parent and those whose parents are still alive.” Did I find a certain melancholic pleasure in returning to this passage again after my father’s death? Yes, I did. I recognized too the intensity of the hug a writer I hadn’t known very long gave me in New York; she had lost her father the same week as mine.

Months after my father’s death, I read Martin Amis’s memoir Experience where he has this to say about the Sunday morning when he and his brother sat outside the hospital where their father had been admitted: “When you read writers on the death of the father, when you read Kingsley on the death of the father, what you are mostly told about is regret. But we had had our say with him and had our time with him. And while we smoked our cigarettes, sitting on the ledge of a circular flowerbed, in patchy sunlight, under rapid clouds, our father died.”

I can’t claim I had had my say. My father remained in a coma after I arrived in Patna. And then he died. If my father had been conscious, I suspect he would have a lot to tell me.

In a poem about her father’s death, Louise Glück writes, “…when a man’s dying, / he has a subject.” As he had a talent for remembering numbers and dates, my father would have given us a scrupulous account of his rising or falling oxygen level, his blood pressure, heart rate, the amount of urine he had produced on any given day. But this didn’t happen and I kept a record myself, eager to inform him in case he returned to the land of the living.

As a good dutiful Hindu son, I had only so far in my life touched my father’s feet; our relationship had been somewhat formal. We had certainly never hugged the way my son and I often do. But now, in the ICU, I would hold my father’s hand or caress his forehead with my palm in the hope that I was comforting him. The head doctor at the ICU encouraged us to speak to our father, assuring us that patients are sometimes able to hear even under sedation. My younger sister, an accomplished singer, sang all my father’s favorite bhajans to him every day. I said things to him in Bhojpuri like you will get better, everyone is here, do not lose courage, but also, in English, what I had never said to him before: I love you, thank you for everything you did for us, you showed us the way we ought to lead our lives. If his eyes moved, I’d begin speaking urgently. After I had said a word or two or three, my voice would rise with emotion and, despite the presence of a nurse in the room, I would burst into tears.

I had already written down most of this piece before I realized that I wasn’t yet done—I wanted to have my say—I was still reporting to my father, the things I had read and all that I had remembered.

__________________________________

my beloved life

My Beloved Life by Amitava Kumar is available from Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.



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Nicole Lambert
Nicole Lambert
Nicole Lamber is a news writer for LinkDaddy News. She writes about arts, entertainment, lifestyle, and home news. Nicole has been a journalist for years and loves to write about what's going on in the world.

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